Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God is a highly polemical argument about the nature of salvation and the character of God. It is polemical inasmuch as it is driven from the outset by a rigorous opposition to what Campbell calls “Justification theory”—the argument that salvation consists essentially in the satisfaction of divine wrath through the atoning death of Jesus, which is appropriated not by any type of work but by faith alone. Campbell maintains that Paul sets out his own understanding of salvation not in Romans 1-4 but in Romans 5-8. Salvation is the unconditional deliverance of humanity from enslavement to sin in order to participate in a new ontology—a new liberated existence—in Christ. Campbell achieves this fundamental theological realignment by ascribing all the retributive material in Romans 1-4 to a particular Jewish-Christian Teacher with whom Paul enters into fictitious dialogue.
The martyrological narrative
Chapter 17 of part 4 is probably the heart of the book: “The Deliverance of God, and Its Rhetorical Implications”. You arrive it at much as you might finally arrive at the Mona Lisa, somewhat footsore, after traipsing through the many rooms and galleries of obscure works in the Louvre. I am, no doubt, rather disoriented and overwhelmed by the experience (much of it undergone over the last few days at the poolside while on a brief holiday in Oman), but I will attempt a superficial and impressionistic critique.
What I find especially interesting in Campbell’s analysis is his characterization of Paul’s account of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection as a “martyrological narrative” (647-656), based largely on his interpretation of the phrase dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou in Romans 3:22 (610-613) and an examination of the background relevance of the stories of the Maccabean martyrs and the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 (648-656). I regard this as a significant step away from a theological reading of Romans towards a consistently narrative reading.
It is supported by two further arguments that Campbell puts forward in this chapter. The first is that the meaning of the phrase “righteousness of God” is determined by—and can be elucidated by—the story of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection (683-84). Secondly, he argues that Old Testament narratives of divine kingship are in the background (duly acknowledging his debt to Hays), so that the statement in Romans 1:17 about the revelation of the righteousness of God must be understood in light of a text such as Psalm 98:2-3:
The Lord has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
The intertextual echo, Campbell suggests, “generates a broad and rich resonance through Romans in terms of the ancient discourse of kingship” (688), and gives rise to what is an “essentially narrative account” of the righteousness of God (696).
My objection is that it is not nearly narrative enough. It has puzzled me all along that Campbell’s analysis sets out from the theoretically constructed premise that what we have in Romans essentially is a generalized argument about salvation that is to be explained either in accordance with Justification theory or as a matter of participation and transformation. The result, it seems to me, is that whenever narrative and contingent elements come to light, they are too quickly subordinated to the prior theoretical commitment. I have made this point with respect to the language of wrath, but it can also be illustrated from a section in this chapter in which Campbell discusses the relationship between the narrative of divine kingship and the covenant.
Righteousness of God and covenant faithfulness
Campbell, of course, is here addressing the argument associated with Wright, Hays and Dunn that “the righteousness of God” means, in effect, “the covenant faithfulness of God”. He accepts that a “righteous act by the divine King” may constitute an act of “covenant faithfulness”, but he thinks that it may also be construed in other ways—as a “dramatically liberating act on behalf of Israel”, or as a saving act “in defiance of Israel’s repeated violations of the covenant”, or as an “oppressive act against enemies… that has nothing to do with a covenant with them”, or as a “retributive act that has nothing to do with a covenant” (700). In fact, “The covenant was not a central, standard, or invariable element in the discourse of divine kingship and hence in the phrase dikaiosynē theou” (701). So although there is allusion to Psalm 98 and the theme of divine kingship in Romans 1:17, the phrase dikaiosynē theou is oriented not towards covenant but “in a fundamentally christocentric direction”:
It speaks not of the covenant with Israel—although it has implications for that!—so much as of the inauguration of the age to come by way of Christ’s enthroning resurrection. It therefore speaks of a liberating act that has implications for all of humanity (Israel of course included).
This allows Campbell to argue that Paul is putting forward a gospel for humanity which incidentally and secondarily has relevance for Israel. I think Paul’s argument—at this point, at least—is the other way round: what is in the first place an announcement regarding the transformation of Israel is found to have repercussions, according to a particular narrative development, for the whole of the pagan world.
1. Whether or not the righteousness of God has direct or explicit reference to the covenant, the Old Testament always presupposes the relationship with Israel. If the defeat of enemies can be counted as a “righteous act”, it is because they are Israel’s enemies, or because YHWH’s reputation in the eyes of the nations is always determined, for better or for worse, by the condition and standing of his people.
2. In Psalm 98 God is shown to be righteous “before the nations” because he has saved Israel, because he remained faithful to his people: “He remembered his mercy to Jacob and his truth to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth saw the deliverance of our God” (Ps. 98:3). Campbell has this back to front when he says that “the saving deliverance that is being effected by God in plain view of the pagan nations” is found also to be an “act of fidelity to the house of Israel” (701). What the Psalm affirms is that the divine act of fidelity towards Israel will be seen by the nations, which will as a consequence acknowledge the rightness of Israel’s God.
Moreover, the salvation of Israel provides the basis for the view that YHWH “will judge the oikoumenēn with righteousness and peoples with justice” (98:9 LXX). This is exactly Paul’s argument (cf. Romans 15:8-12): Israel’s divine king has saved his people; this “righteous act” of deliverance has been witnessed by the nations (through the preaching of the gospel); and the outcome will eventually be the righteous judgment of the oikoumenē, not in final but in contingent historical terms.
3. Contrary to Campbell’s claim that there is nothing in Romans 1:16-17 that “activates such specific resonances explicitly”, the covenantal framework appears to be introduced by the quotation of Habakkuk 2:4. Habakkuk is not a narrative about humanity: it addresses the question of how YHWH will deal with injustice in Israel and with the implications of what is revealed for the righteous. It is because of the covenant relationship—in fact, because of the failure of the Law to guarantee justice (Hab. 1:4)—that God is expected to act to justify himself. The nations are implicated in the narrative, but they are instrumental to YHWH’s purposes regarding Israel.
Safeguarding the narrative
I make these points not in order to defend the “covenant faithfulness” definition of the “righteousness of God”, which I think may obscure some of the broader political implications of the phrase, but to highlight the tendency to suppress the Jewish narrative in the interests of theological coherence at an anthropological level. Campbell assumes that what Paul expounds in chapters 5-8, having extricated himself with such rhetorical ingenuity from his dialogue with the Teacher, is a general doctrine of the salvation of humanity. The meticulous dissection of Romans 1-4 and the apportioning of the argument about wrath to the Teacher is a critical step in this proposal.
It is the discourse of wrath, however, and the events that it foresees which ground Paul’s argument in the particularities of history rather than in the generalities of anthropology. If we recover the historical orientation that is given not least in the allusion to Habakkuk, the argument about divine kingship may also be rescaled. Divine kingship is conceived in the Old Testament not in abstract or entirely apolitical cosmic terms but in relation to the nations. The coming of the kingdom of God in the New Testament has in view a transformation of the status of the people of God vis-à-vis the nations; and in the apocalyptic scenario envisaged it entails the faithful suffering of the transitional community in Christ. Like the majority of commentators—and despite his appreciation of the martyrological dimension to the Jesus story—Campbell misses the significance of the theme of Christ-like suffering in the hope of Christ-like vindication in Romans. This is the concrete form of faithfulness under conditions of wrath that is encapsulated in Habakkuk’s apophthegm—and it will provide the theological and sociological basis for the eventual demonstration of the right(eous)ness of God.
The right(eous)ness and wrath of God
Paul is convinced by the resurrection of Jesus that Israel’s God will establish his right(eous)ness with respect to the pagan nations that make up the Greek-Roman oikoumenē whose influence stretched from Jerusalem through Illyricum to Spain, which is the scope of his intended apostolic mission. Israel’s God will, in the foreseeable future, show himself to be God of the nations, of the whole world, not of Jews only but also of Gentiles. This will amount to a judgment—admittedly a belated judgment—of the nations of the oikoumenē for their longstanding idolatry and for the habits of immorality and injustice that have resulted from it. History, in Paul’s view, is moving towards a dramatic climax.
However, Israel’s God cannot hold the oikoumenē accountable without first holding Israel accountable. The Law should have set Israel apart as a benchmark of righteousness amidst the pagan nations, but because of its captivity to sin Israel failed in its calling. It came down to a simple empirical observation: adherence to the Law made no great difference; Israel was no better than the pagan nations whose political-religious hegemony, Paul believed, was coming to an end.
It is this argument about the eventual demonstration of the right(eous)ness of Israel’s God before the nations which brings into play—necessarily, I think—the language of wrath. There are two points to be made. First, ”wrath” in scripture is not an absolute and final but a contingent and historical category. It becomes relevant for Paul’s argument about the future of the family of Abraham because certain devastating and momentous events are coming into view which must be explained theologically—first, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple; secondly, the end of the age of classical paganism.
Secondly, this is not a crude “turn or burn” argument, as Campbell characterizes it (705, 707). It is grounded in the perception that the name of Israel’s God is held in disregard amongst the pagan nations because of Israel’s behaviour (cf. Rom. 1:5; 2:24), and that he is bound, sooner or later to act to rectify this situation. But it is also grounded in realistic historical prognosis: given the terms of the covenant, the precedence of prophetic testimonies, and the seeming pervasiveness of the expectation in the teaching of Jesus and the Jerusalem community, it is difficult to think that Paul would not have interpreted the political catastrophe of the Jewish War as a sign of divine judgment against a persistently rebellious people.
My view is that we resolve the difficulties generated by Justification theory—to the extent that this constitutes a plausible construction—not by offloading the argument about wrath on to a theological adversary but by bringing into view the historical situation that would quite naturally have been at the forefront of Paul’s mind. From this angle the language of wrath appears as a reasonable and inevitable account of the events by means of which the God of Israel would show himself to be right(eous) in the eyes of the nations. The narrative of participation and transformation in Romans 5-8 arises because the salvation of Israel from oblivion through the faithfulness of Jesus also entails the suffering and vindication of a community that will constitute a new benchmark of righteousness with reference to which the oikoumenē would be judged.